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Exploring the meal replacement industry

The past, present, and future of food supplements
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Supplements aim to provide the calories and nutrients of a meal in a compacted form. SRIVINDHYA KOLLURU/THE VARSITY
Supplements aim to provide the calories and nutrients of a meal in a compacted form. SRIVINDHYA KOLLURU/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses colonial systems of anti-Indigenous racism.

Imagining the future of food has an allure that few science fiction writers have been able to resist. From The Jetsons and their Dial-a-Meal, which pops out pills with all the nutrients you need, to Doctor Who’s food replicator, which packs a full meal into a single tofu-esque bar, many sci-fi stories have explored fictitious diets of the future. But where does fiction end and reality begin? 

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and reflect on the history of meal replacements, explore the current innovators shifting our perspective on food, and — in keeping with the sci-fi tradition — imagine the advantages, challenges, and potentials of a foodless future.

Pemmican the predecessor

Despite its modern-day connotations with disruptive Silicon Valley tech bros seeking to be the next Steve Jobs, the idea of the meal replacement is quite old. In fact, it originated at least 5,000 years ago. We can trace the inspiration for this modern conception of meal replacement back to the source of many other great Euro-American ideas: the stolen ideas of the colonized.

Indigenous peoples in North America had developed a clever way of storing meat without spoiling it. After drying out excess meat — primarily bison — it was crushed into a fine powder and mixed with fat and berries to form what is known as ‘pemmican,’ an important part of some Indigenous cuisines. 

Once it was packed into tight bags, pemmican stayed remarkably shelf-stable while still being nutritious and calorically dense. This was of great interest to European colonizers, who frequently starved when their supplies ran out during expeditions. Indigenous peoples began to trade pemmican with these settlers, who then carried the light-weight snack on their journeys to replace more traditional European meals — arguably cementing its status as the first meal replacement.

The kindness of sharing this food was not reciprocated. European colonizers hunted bison to near extinction for their fur, inducing devastating famines in Indigenous communities. These grim conditions were used by colonial governments to coerce Indigenous peoples into complying with oppressive demands. The ensuing cultural genocide buried pemmican, but the idea of replacing meals had firmly entered the public consciousness.

The great kitchen liberation

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, American suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease speculated on the future of food before it became cool. In the subtly named essay, “Improvements so Extraordinary the World Will Shudder,” Lease introduced an idea which would later become a pillar of food futurism: the meal in a pill. 

Departing from the modern interpretation of this pill, Lease imagined the invention not only as a convenience but also as a tool for liberation. Women would be freed from having to cook for their husbands, giving them time to educate themselves and to fight for equality.  

A pill a day keeps the patriarchy away?

Houston, we have a problem

Let’s move on to the 1960s. NASA was looking to replace traditional foods with lighter, more efficient alternatives to serve on their spacecrafts. These replacements needed to be nutritious to keep astronauts in peak mental and physical shape.

This made NASA’s decision to choose Tang as a solution even more inexplicable. Tang was launched into space — much to the chagrin of Buzz Aldrin, quoted as saying, “Tang sucks” — and probably came closer to the moon than it ever did a real orange. 

The brand was later deemed nutritionally inadequate, alongside possessing copious quantities of sugar. Needless to say, it was removed from future missions. Upon learning this, Tang company executives logically reacted by reformulating Tang to improve its nutritional content while also lowering the unhealthy amount of sugar.

Ha! I wish. Tang was instead mass produced for large-scale consumption by the general public, being advertised as the food of the future for astronauts and a vital part of any kid’s breakfast. 

Soylent, enter stage left

You have now returned to the present. Welcome back! What have our contemporaries been up to?

The clear winner of the current meal replacement race is Soylent. The product isn’t made of people; it is made for people. Specifically, for the people who have looked at salad and agreed with the words of Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart, “It seemed a little primitive – like something an animal would do. On this nice plate, in this nice house, why would I eat this thing that grows on trees?” 

I encourage you to look past the fact that Rhinehart sounds like an alien pretending to be a human. Soylent is innovative. Coming in both powder and pre-made smoothie form, Soylent products are said to contain all of the calories and nutrients you’d need from a meal. 

Similar companies have been popping up as well, such as MealSquare and nonfood. This illustrates two facts: the growing demand for such products, and that these companies desperately need to hire a PR team and undergo rigorous rebranding to create better names.

Meal replacement advantages

With the rising general concern over the climate crisis, many consumers are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact. 

These meal replacements fit this mold quite well. They can be transported more effectively than traditional foods, and their shelf stability can help stop Canada’s current trend of wasting food. In 2019, Canadians were throwing out 58 per cent of all produced food. 

Meal replacements also show promise in stabilizing the global food chain. Most ingredients used to create these products are easily made, making their production very scalable. This, combined with the aforementioned shelf-stability, positions meal replacements as a promising solution to global food insecurity. 

There is, however, an issue with this plan: will people even eat these products, and should they?

Meal replacement disadvantages

Although meal replacements may be the wet dream of a nutritionist robot seeking maximum diet efficiency, the subjective human experience can often tell a different story. 

The primadonna of the modern food alternatives industry, Soylent, has received the following rave reviews: “[A] punishingly boring, joyless product”; “this gloop tastes disgusting. I feel more hungover after draining it, but I do feel full”; and “It tasted like someone wrung out a dishtowel into a glass.”

Now, as someone familiar with the taste of a used dishcloth wrung into a glass — see: me trying to have my Leonardo DiCaprio moment in my magnum opus ninth-grade student film — I can assure you it’s much worse than you imagine. This does not bode well for Soylent.

The health claims of these products are also dubious. In 2017, Soylent was banned in Canada as it did not meet the standards needed to qualify as a meal replacement. 

The idea of a meal in a pill presents its own unique set of challenges. Humans need more than just nutrients — we also need calories. Even if it were full of fats, a single pill could never match the caloric content of a traditional meal. In fact, some have estimated that we would need to consume hundreds of these pills to hit our caloric needs, essentially defeating their purpose.

Back to the future

What does the future of this industry look like? 

Genetically modified organisms show some promise, particularly biofortified ones. Biofortification is the practice of altering the genetics of crops to increase their nutrient content or to introduce new nutrients not usually found within a species. Some futurists have imagined artificial calorie-dense crops that would create superfoods. 

No, this isn’t like the article your mom’s friend Linda posted about Goji berries beneath an advertisement for her astrology-based hair salon — they’re real superfoods. They possess all the nutrients needed to healthily function, fulfill your calorie requirements with far less mass, and satisfy your taste buds.

Of course, some argue that attempting to replace meals is a fruitless effort — pun intended. Instead, we should focus on improving the environmental impact and production speed of the current staples of our food culture. We should see how we can improve the efficiency and quantity of our farms to fulfil the growing demand for food, and find innovative ways to decrease the preparation time of our food.

Replacing meals with Soylent seems crazy when compared to more realistic ideas of augmented foods. Take the proposed hamburgertato — a potato which has insides that taste and act like meat.

On second thought, maybe we need to get back to the drawing board.